Practicing mindfulness, Henry James-style

I have nine—eight—seven days left here. Is it bad for me to be counting them down? I know I’ll miss Mexico when I’m gone, the same way I miss every place I leave. It’s a bad habit of mine, wanting to be somewhere else so badly that it interferes with my enjoyment of the present moment, of where I am currently. (Man, does that sound like a problem of mankind or what? The inability to appreciate and remain in the present time and place!) I’ll miss the street food, especially the amazing sopes I ate at that random cart with my Uruguayan friend by the park this Sunday. I’ll miss the karaoke bar with the giant hat in front, and the man in the sombrero walking around at 2AM pouring tequila out of a leather flask down the throats of anyone who opened their mouths.

I don’t know what lesson to take away of my time here. I don’t want it to be one of defeat. I wish I were able to say that I learned something, that a moral, a truth I’d always desperately been seeking had been announced loud and clear. It definitely wasn’t WOWZERS!! Microfinance really and truly is the solution to all of the world’s problems, especially global poverty!! (To be fair, I didn’t come here expecting to see this.) I was thinking of something finding something along the lines of, OH! Yes, this kind of work, development work, this is really the kind for me!! Or: WOW! I’ve thought of a really great idea for a future masters thesis, thanks to my field research here! Neither of these two statements are completely true… but I can’t say that they’re total lies, either.

I guess I thought that coming to Mexico again would bring about some kind of closure for me. I have a big thing for retracing my past steps, in the hopes that lessons I missed the first time around will reveal themselves more clearly. I was last here in 2007, during a summer job in Tijuana, and it was really, really, really good experience, to say the least. I healed a broken heart, made amazing friends and learned a ton. I’ve done the same here (minus the broken heart bit—strengthened it, you could say), but it hasn’t felt as intense. I dunno how much that has to do with being 24 as opposed to 21. Mostly, this time around I feel like I’ve had to deal with MYSELF a lot, which is maybe an inevitable consequence of living alone in a country where you really don’t know anyone. I mean, I made friends, I hung out with people—I am going to let myself be proud of myself for the relationships I’ve established in this community, dammit. I came here wanting to be immersed in the feeling that I had come full circle. It didn’t exactly happen that way, of course, because life never happens the way you want it to. It could have been better. But it also could have been a lot worse.

Wow, I sound really ambivalent, don’t I? I guess that’s a result of the counting-down-the-days feeling I’ve been mired in since Corey left. I’ve been left wanting to kill time so bad. I wanted to chop it up with an axe, just have it over, done with, so that I could move on to the next step. I always get this itchy feet feeling whenever the 10-week mark of being in a new place creeps around. It’s not that things are bad here, it’s just that I really, really miss my family, and I’m very, very ready to be in Portland with them (if only for a limited time). I also am very anxious to be with Corey, to really commit to this relationship and to being together, like definitively together in a very grown-up way—I was already pretty sure about this before coming here, and now it’s the one thing I can say I’m DEFINITELY sure about. So, I guess if nothing else, that’s one definitive, horn-blaringly loud truth that I’ve learned. One is better than none, right? I love the idea of him coming with me on my next placement with Kiva (which is no longer in Ecuador, by the way. I’m not at liberty to say where just yet, but trust me: I’m more than pleased. It makes perfect, ridiculous sense for me to be there, in more ways than one).

I guess I’m trying to extract some hard-earned wisdom here at the last minute, during the eve of my last week. Um. What else will I miss about Nuevo Laredo? The street cats I’ve come to recognize from my block (the black one, the calico one, the five kittens, one of whom I found dead on the street a few weeks ago). Estacion Palabra and the shelves full of comforting books I’ve come to memorize, scanning the rows every weekend. The bar decorated with frog images, where you can order six Coronas in a bucket of ice. Mini Super JIT, my local grocery store and local provider of weekly 6-packs of Miller Lite, where I still have an outstanding “cuenta” of 10.50 pesos when I bought a box of Special K cereal and didn’t have enough change with me. The grilled elote (corn) you can buy on any street corner. People’s gardens and the things they grow: cactuses, agave, orange trees, yellow trumpet-shaped flowers (Corey spotted a lot of interesting nut trees while he was here, always fun to walk around the neighborhood with a botanist). The sunflowers that suddenly appeared out of nowhere on an abandoned empty lot near my house, the sight of which nearly brought tears to my eyes when I glimpsed them from a car window (NATURE!!). The mockingbirds that explode into a cacophony of hoots and calls like clockwork every sunset, darkening the sky above the street plazas as they fly from tree to tree. The Christmas lights hanging over the cement walls in front of people’s houses. My $120/month apartment with its two rooms, the toilet that always smells, the floor tile I use to cover the pan when I’m boiling rice, the fruit flies that somehow succeed in thriving in my papayas in the fridge (OK… maybe this not so much).

Relics from Nuevo Laredo: James, pepper spray, Miller Lite, flowers from the street

I wanted to write “these past few weeks have been as hard as reading a Henry James novel” but that’s not really true. Ha. I’ve been reading “Wings of the Dove” and it is, as they say, slow going. I’ll be slogging through a murk and mess of run-on sentences and obscure references with no idea of what’s going on when suddenly a flash of insight and wisdom occurs, in a beautifully written sentence that just makes sense, and it feels so beautiful in contrast to all the murkiness and confusion that come before. Hey, sounds a lot like human consciousness, right? No wonder this novel was referred to with regularity in David Lodge’s Thinks, a great book that deals with the question of consciousness, among other things.

“Consciousness” is one of the most common words in this book. I wonder if it’s used almost as much as “solitude” in “Cien Anos de Soledad” (my high school Spanish teacher claimed that “soledad” appeared at least once on every page of the novel, I’ve never actually confirmed this). It’s… difficult. But rewarding. Henry James is another author who’s difficult to recommend. The director at my MFI (microfinance institution) saw WOTD on my desk, picked it up and asked me if it was good. All I could say was “um…” not wanting to be blamed in case he bought a copy in translation, read a page and then stared into space wondering what possessed him to listen to the advice of the scraggly haired American. (He’s a great guy, by the way, and is a big reader himself—during our first conversation we talked for ages about books and authors and and and oh, it was wonderful!) As an experiment, back in Portland when I had Dove checked out from the library but never got around to reading it (I probably still have a late fine to pay on it, boo!), I had my housemate read a page. I think he probably made it through the first sentence before throwing it on the floor and shouting “WHAT THE BLEEP IS THIS BLEEP.” yeah. I mean, just look at the opening sentences:

“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. It was at this point, however, that she remained; changing her place, moving from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once—she had tried it—the sense of the slippery and of the sticky.”

The slippery and the sticky. I love it. One of the main characters in David Lodge’s Thinks does a great analysis of this passage, in which she discusses how these opening sentences are a wonderful example of James’ stream of consciousness technique: there’s no omniscient narrator, hovering above and letting us know what is going on in Kate Croy’s mind. Instead, we are in her mind, feeling her anxiety, her restlessness, as she paces about the room. It’s a very interesting technique, but probably hard as hell to write, and it can be damn draining to read. You’re always right there, right in the character’s mind as their thoughts swirl darkly and wildly around as judgments, projections and imaginings take the forefront. Entire chapters take place around four or five lines of dialogue (probably more, but it feels like less). Henry James was a very, very talented man (or as I put it more crudely to Corey, the guy could write like a MF).

I can’t imagine anyone in this day and age being able to write like this (I believe in the 100+ years in which “Dove” was published, no one has). It was an interesting experience to read this novel after reading Portrait of a Lady earlier this year (which I think might very well take the coveted #1 slot on my oh so important favorite books of 2009 list. Ha). Another David Lodge novel, Author Author, is a work of historical fiction dealing with James’ brief foray into the theater. Apparently James abandoned writing altogether for a good decade or so in the 1890’s in order to take a stab at writing plays, in order to produce critically acclaimed theatrical pieces that would bring him popularity, respect and adoration from millions (needless to say it didn’t happen that way—did I mention already that life never happens the way you want it to?). What his theater work did provide him with, though, was the ability to write just from a character’s mind. In a play, there’s no narrator setting the scene or providing omniscient narration. It’s just the dialogue. It’s all about “reading” the scene: the reaction to a sentence, the way a woman looks at a man, or at a younger American woman with money, the way the entire atmosphere of a room can change with the arrival or presence of a certain person. Instead of a light penetration, where the narrator tells you what’s happening in a neutral voice and gives a narrator’s viewpoint on the character’s attitudes and motivations, dipping in and out of character’s minds the way you dip a tortilla chip into salsa, you have a DEEP penetration, in which you never leave the viewpoint as seen through the character’s eyes. It’s intense and involving, and as exhausting as being trapped in your own head, with all the yappings and yippings that go on up there.

My favorite character in this book so far has been Milly Theale, the young doomed American who comes to Europe only to be callously taken advantage of by the old school British. At first I was surprised that James spends so much time inside Milly’s head during the first 200 pages, because in the movie (which is okay; the Portrait of a Lady film is a superior adaptation IMHO) she’s very much treated as a distant, secondary figure to Kate and Denscher, the scheming couple. The part where she leaves the doctor after hearing some bad news (or is it just ambiguous news? You never can tell, with James) and walks quickly through the streets of London with her heart pounding may be one of the best passages that I’ve read all year. Her are some of the excerpts I underlined, the ones that really struck a chord with me:

(171) She literally felt, in this first flush, that her only company must be the human race at large, that her field must be, then and there, the grey immensity of London. Grey immensity had somehow of a sudden become her element; grey immensity was what her distinguished friend [the doctor] had, for the moment, furnished her world with and what the question of ‘living’, as he put it to her, living by option, by volition…

she had been treated—hadn’t she?–as if it were in her power to live; and yet one wasn’t treated so—was one?–unless it came up, quite as much, that one might die… But the beauty of the idea of a great adventure, a big dim experiment or struggle in which she might, more responsibly than ever before, take a hand, had been offered her instead.

(173) Here doubtless were hundreds of others just in the same box. Their box, their great common anxiety, what was it, in this grim breathing-space, but the practical question of life? They could live if they would; that is, like herself, they had been told so; she saw them all about her, on seats, digesting the information… the blessed old truth that they would live if they could.

(176) It was perhaps superficially more striking that one could live if one would; but it was more appealing, insinuating, irresistible, in short, that one would live if one could.

Good stuff. Moments like these don’t happen often in James, but when they do, they’re like a flash of lightning. Just like day to day existence: sometimes it feels like you’re going through one murky day after another, and you don’t know what it adds up to, and you don’t know what it means, and then all of a sudden—BAM! Some insight that you didn’t have before hits you clearly, and all of a sudden you seen your life in a different way than you did before. And then just as quickly as it came it’s gone, and you’re back to your nail-chewing ways, spilling lentils on the floor of your apartment, hoping that the toilet isn’t clogged and eating the last of your stale Special K flakes with the last few drops squeezed out of the soy milk carton. It’s a shame that such beautiful, illuminating flashes of insight don’t come around more often. Though I guess if they did, they wouldn’t be that special, would they? Now that sounds like a form of hard-fought wisdom…

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Filed under consciousness, Henry James, Mexico, mindfulness, Nuevo Laredo, wisdom

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